Turns out that the neocons are indeed full of crap:
In a recent paper, co-author Andrea Dean and I investigate whether democratic dominoes like the ones American foreign policy posits actually exist and, if they do, how “hard” they fall.
Does democracy really spread between countries? If so, how much? We find that democratic dominoes do in fact exist, but they fall significantly “lighter” than foreign policy applications of this principle pretend.
Countries only “catch” about 11 percent of their geographic neighbors’ average changes in democracy; the modesty of this spread rate is consistent over time. Our analysis extends back to 1850, but 150-plus years ago, like today, changes in countries’ democracies were only mildly contagious.
Our study isn’t focused on the impact of U.S. intervention on democracy abroad. But if our estimates are in the ballpark, they have potentially sobering implications for attempts to democratize the world through intervention. Even if U.S. intervention succeeds in improving democracy in a key country it occupies, the democracy-enhancing “spillovers” of the intervention are likely to be minimal.
Democratic dominoes don’t have the “oomph” to democratize entire regions. Most of an intervention’s benefits for democracy, where there are any at all, are likely to remain local.
Bill Easterly and two of his colleagues have a provocative working paper that looks specifically at foreign intervention’s influence on democracy abroad. What they find is even more damning for domino-inspired interventions.
According to their work, which examines interventions in the cold war period, U.S. interventions decreased democracy by 33 percent in countries where America intervened (so did Soviet interventions). Christopher Coyne’s important book examines the reasons for this failure and provides evidence that foreign intervention’s democracy-reducing outcome isn’t limited to the cold war context.
I’ve always thought that spreading democracy should take a distant third place to defending and improving our own. I would point out, however, that the entire point of Soviet interventions was to stop democracy.